Young talent in 2016 All-Star Game highlights importance of prospects

The Midsummer Classic has more young talent in 2016 than it has in a long time, but the wave of young superstars is just starting to crest.

SAN DIEGO – The game’s biggest stage underscored just how much the sport currently depends on young talent as 18 players age 25 or younger were in uniform on Tuesday.

The last five years has seen a nearly-unprecedented influx of young superstars, shining the spotlight on the growing importance of scouting and player development in building winning clubs.

“Obviously, I think people see the value in prospects, and I think people more and more continue to see the value in young players” said San Diego Padres GM A.J. Preller in the lead-up to the festivities. “But still, the most valuable commodity in the game is players who can do it in the Major Leagues.”

When those players are also under team control and paid salaries below market rates, they are exponentially more valuable.

Four of the division leaders at the break had at least one of the young stars in the contest, and the Cubs were represented by both Addison Russell (22) and Kris Bryant (24).

“It’s awesome to be part of that group,” said Manny Machado (24), who was just the fifth-youngest player at his position in the game. “It’s special too that we’re going to be together for a while.

“We all want to push each other, and we all want to be on the big stage.”

While much has been made of the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuild efforts that focused on maximizing early draft picks and high-profile international spending, the young All-Stars joined their clubs in a variety of ways.

Certainly Bryce Harper (23), the first overall selection in 2010, Bryant, the second in 2013, and Machado, number three in 2010, were pegged for greatness well before their big league debuts. But Odubel Herrera (24) was selected in the Rule 5 draft prior to last season, Marcell Ozuna (24) was signed out of the Dominican Republic for a relatively paltry $50,000 as a 17-year-old, and Wil Myers (25) was traded twice before settling in with the Padres.

“It’s special,” said Bryant of being part of the youth wave in the game. “Playing the first three innings with Addison, who’s 22, and then Seager, who’s 22 also. I think it’s special to have this many of us young guys in the game.”

With so much youth among the position players, Jose Fernandez was the only pitcher under 25 to throw on Tuesday, though Noah Syndergaard was on the roster but sidelined with an injury.

That may well change in the next few years with Julio Urias, Alex Reyes, and Lucas Giolito on the verge of establishing themselves at the big league level.

“It’s great that there’s so much talent in this game,” said Fernandez. “So many guys doing amazing things, it’s fun to watch.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of having a player who can contribute at such a high level early in their careers, when free agents get well north of $25 million annually for similar production.

It’s this tantalizing promise that has inspired teams to push the envelope in looking for the next 20-something star.

Many teams have blown through international signing bonus limits in recent years, accepting the loss of future signing opportunities to maximize their chances in one year. Others are spending more time scouting in lesser-known corners of the amateur market, and even at the lowest levels of the professional ranks, seeking the next Russell or Willy Adames to be acquired in trade.

“When you see what’s coming up for the next couple of years,” said Machado. “It’s pretty awesome.”

That’s a sentiment shared by players and fans alike.

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